Saturday, August 08, 2020

Why Are Romanians Running Fake "Black Trump Supporter" Accounts?

Facebook announced it had suspended a legion of accounts that purported to be Black Trump supporters but were actually Romanian in origin. Which raises the question: Why are Romanians pretending to be Black Trump supporters on Facebook?

To be clear -- there's no "good" answer to this. All the possible motivations are terrible. But they can be differently terrible. For example, while the most likely explanations are political, there are some apolitical rationales I can imagine, namely:

  • It's a grift. Scammers have discovered that gullible White people are thirsting for Black Trump supporters to exist, and this is an easy way to exploit that hunger for cash.
Someone could be interested in running this con with no particular interest or concern with the political ramifications. 

But there are quite a few different political motivations I can imagine as well (and these might all occur in conjunction):
  • The purpose is to support Trump by galvanizing Black Trump supporters -- showing them that they're not alone, there's a community, and they should be out and proud.
  • The purpose is to support Trump by galvanizing White Trump supporters -- showing them that "not all Blacks" oppose him and that therefore claims that he's racist are just ginned up by the liberal media/BLM Marxist/Soros network.
  • The purpose is to sow chaos. It's not really about supporting Trump per se, but about generating dissension, fraying bonds of trust, and inculcating a sense that everything one sees is a lie or at least a potential lie -- sentiments which, if strong enough, are toxic to functioning democratic societies.
Again, all of these "motives" are terrible things, and do real damage to the vitality of the American democratic system. Which is why, while I give Facebook some belated credit for expunging the accounts, it is absolutely essential that they take a firmer hand on this sort of problem.

Friday, August 07, 2020

Tennessee Primary Night

Tennessee had a primary tonight. There aren't really any competitive general election races in Tennessee, so I wasn't paying too much attention to the primaries either. But a few things worth noting:
  • Tennessee's Senate race wasn't going to be competitive, but everyone thought they knew who the Democratic nominee was. Attorney James Mackler had the DSCC endorsement and raised millions of dollars. Nobody else in the field had broken out of 5 digits in fundraising. Yet Mackler ended up taking third, with the victory going to virtual unknown Marquita Bradshaw. This wasn't on anyone's radar screen (while Bradshaw is definitely a progressive, this wasn't a case where there was some big grassroots energy burbling up against the establishment). Bradshaw will once again be the prohibitive underdog against GOP nominee Bill Hagerty. I admit that every time something like this happens -- a complete unknown randomly secures a major party nomination in a high-profile race -- I brace myself for some embarrassing revelation about something they once said on Facebook or a controversial job they once held.
  • Once again, Rep. Steve Cohen (D) faced a credible primary challenger (this time from Shelby County Democratic Party chair Corey Strong). And once again, he had nothing to worry about, throttling his opponent by a 70 point margin. Strong's explanation for why he got into the race is unintentionally hilarious: he acknowledges that Cohen (a) has a great voting record, (b) support Obama administration policies and opposed Trumpist policies, (c) is a national leader, and (d) has been deeply attentive to his district. So what exactly does he think the angle is? Eventually people will learn.
  • Tennessee's 1st congressional district has the longest Republican winning streak in the nation. So when the seat is open, a lot of Republicans jump at the chance to go to Washington. This year, the winner -- with just 19% of the vote(!) -- is Diana Harshbarger. Five candidates had double-digit vote tallies -- the field was that fractured. Meanwhile, I can't figure out how to say "Harshbarger" without sounding ridiculous.
  • The most serious primary challenge of the evening came against Nashville-based Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper, who is considerably more conservative than his district demographics suggest is justified. He survived Keeda Haynes' attempt to take him out from the left, albeit by a rather underwhelming 53-44 margin. That might give Haynes some inspiration from a rematch (look at Cori Bush and Marie Newman), but there are rumors floating around that the Tennessee GOP might try to gerrymander this seat out of existence now that the Supreme Court has waved the green flag at partisan redistricting.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Should Peter Beinart and Co. Ally with the Israeli Right?

One of life's little paradoxes is that a prerequisite for a one-state solution, which many on the left support, is Israel formally annexing the West Bank, which most on the left bitterly oppose.

I was thinking about this in relation to Peter Beinart's bombshell announcement that he no longer supports a two-state solution but instead will now back a secular, one-"state for all its citizens" solution. Many have noted that this proposal has essentially no backing among any constituencies of note in either Israel or Palestine (in both, the main divide is between two-staters versus "one state for me but not for thee" sorts).

But, in another of life's little ironies, the camp in Israel who probably comes the closest to supporting Beinart's view and those of "left-wing" one-staters abroad is ... the Israel middle-right. A great many of them are, of course, avowed supporters of a one-state solution. But many of them forthrightly say that in that one state all residents should gain full citizenship and voting rights. President Ruvi Rivlin is in this camp, but it also includes folks with a more hardline reputation like Tzipi Hotovely. It also has representation in the rank-and-file -- interviewing some of the right-wingers who have joined recent anti-Bibi protests that have rocked Israel, we saw people who claimed to be security "hawks", delighted at the prospect of annexation, but only if "Palestinians living there receive full rights."

We shouldn't overstate things. For one, there are plenty of folks on the settler right who are equally clear that their "one-state" vision is one where Palestinians are permanently subjugated and/or expelled. And in the case of folks like Hotovely, I can't help but think she hasn't quite thought through the implications of one-state with democratic equality with respect to our right-wing politics (Hotovely thinks that mass Jewish migration to Israel will preserve a Jewish majority, but even if that's the case it is very unlikely that the Jewish right she's a part of will be able to maintain its hammerlock on political power once 40% of voters are non-Jewish). 

Yet I can't help but think that one state with nominal equal rights will be the inch that gives a mile -- even if people like Hotovely get cold feet, it will be much harder to resist more extensive equality claims in this context than in the status quo. It's even possible we'll end up seeing what I've termed the "Czechoslovakia gambit" -- one state leading to two states.

Ultimately, the fact is that with the left in Israel essentially moribund, the most viable political actors who could push for something resembling "one state with equal rights" lie on the Israeli right. There is yet another layer of irony here, since frustration with the anti-democratic and illiberal actions of the Israeli right in its decades of power are largely responsible for people like Beinart abandoning the two-state solution. Given that history, can Beinart and company stomach working with them? Politics makes for strange bedfellows indeed.

New Short Essay: "On Loving 'Jews' and Hating Jews"

AJS Perspectives -- the "popular" magazine of the Association for Jewish Studies (the AJS Review is their academic journal) -- has just released its new issue on the subject of "hate". My contribution is entitled "On Loving 'Jews' and Hating Jews". An excerpt:
Many people love “Jews”—that is, the concept of “Jews” they've constructed for their own purposes. They envision a particular role that “Jews” are assigned to play, and so long as Jews stay in that role we may genuinely be loved. But when Jews—actual Jews—do not deign to stay in the roles assigned to “Jews,” this favor yields to shock, then betrayal, then hatred.

What “role” are the Jews assigned? It varies. Some love Jews as “noble victims,” eager to sacrifice themselves on the altar of selfless universalism. Others value Jews as loyal foot soldiers in service of eschatological religious warfare across the globe. Some love Jews as harbingers of Christ, the instrumental prelude that sets the stage for and is completed by Christianity’s epic. And some adore those Jews who volunteer to intone that soothing chant —“anti-Zionism is not antisemitism”—whenever called upon to do so.

Jews who stay at their assigned post may well be loved, and there are some Jews who—by coercion or by choice— do fill these roles. Nonetheless, these concepts of “Jews” are built by non-Jews, for non-Jews. For the most part, Jews will fail to live up to the ideal imagined “Jew.” And they will be hated for it. Love for “Jews” yields hatred for Jews.
It's not a long essay, so I encourage you to read the whole thing.  

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Monday, July 27, 2020

Should I PlagueWatch It?: Alpha House

I'm surprised it took me this long to watch Alpha House -- not only would it seemingly scratch the illusive West Wing itch, but it was the project that took Garry Trudeau away from my beloved Doonesbury. Come to think of it, maybe that's why I didn't watch it.

Alpha House centers on four Republican Senators who live together in a Washington, DC row house (based on real life!). It's sort of like The West Wing, except the Senate instead of the Presidency and Republicans instead of Democrats, and set in "the real world" (Obama is the president during the series, for example). The four main characters actually do a decent job running the gamut of Republican archetypes of the mid-2010s: the smart but probably corrupt one (Robert Bettencourt of Pennsylvania, who also does a good job as a Black Republican); the lazy, coasting off name-recognition one (Gil John Biggs of North Carolina, played to perfection by John Goodman as a former UNC basketball coach); the cluelessly homophobic but possibly closeted one (Louis Laffer of Nevada), and the hyper-ambitious but sex-addicted wunderkind (Andy Guzman of Florida, definitely channeling some Marco Rubio).

Is it good? Yes. It's main drawback is that it was clearly cancelled prematurely. But its two seasons are definitely worth watching. Other thoughts:
  • The other main players on the show are the Senators' key staffers, who are all -- in true DC fashion -- overworked and underappreciated. They generally do a good job playing straight man to their bosses' antics, to good effect. The lesbian couple that's not exactly closeted but not exactly out either, given the known politics of their party, is a particularly good touch.
  • There's a scene early in the series where a house guest walks in on John Goodman coming out of the shower. It's shot in such a way such that the bare ass of Goodman's character almost certainly is a body double -- which makes me wonder how one casts for that. "Wanted: John Goodman ass lookalike"?
  • Janel Moloney, aka Donna Moss, has a fabulous arc as the hyper-conservative Tea Party Senator from North Dakota who carries a gun on Capitol Hill and says her favorite painting is of the British burning down the White House because it symbolizes what she wants to do to government. I don't know if making her Senator from North Dakota was specifically meant to be fan service, but the one cameo scene where she's on a panel with Bradley Whitford and just immediately tells him to "shut up" definitely was. I wonder how many takes it took because she accidentally called him Josh?
  • Speaking of the recurring characters, Wanda Sykes is in the series as the quartet's next door neighbor and friend (who is also a Democratic Senator from Illinois). Wanda Sykes really should be in more things.
  • We've got just enough distance that some of the Obama-era specific jokes are funny again. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of making the Benghazi committee permanent, so that "future generations" would not be deprived of the opportunity to investigate it.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Should I PlagueWatch It?: Marvel's Runaways

Times are getting desperate in the Schraub/Rodde household. We've watched every back episode of Community at least ten times by now. But deep in the bowels of "recommended for you" on Hulu came a real contender for our attentions: Marvel's Runaways. We just finished the first season (of three) -- should you watch it too?

Marvel's Runaways is about a group of high school friends who discover the charity their parents all volunteer for is actually an evil teenager-sacrificing secret society. "Friends" is a bit of a ragged descriptor -- though the kids all grew up together, at the start of the show they've grown apart (partially because they're teens now, partially because one member of the group apparently committed suicide). The discovery of their parents' secret does end up bringing them back together, but the show does a good job of underscoring that the differences in their personality and gripes with one another are real and can't fully be papered-over merely by circumstance. The parents, incidentally, are in the same boat -- somewhere between co-workers and friends, not really liking each other but having a sort of affinity and bond that is (I imagine) unavoidable when you've collectively been working together in a secret society for over a decade.

Oh, and some of the kids also have superpowers. Inhuman strength, for one, or an ability to talk to her parents' pet dinosaur, for another. One of them glows with strobing lights that she can pulse as energy, and also can fly. This is useful given that they're now lining up against the aforementioned subterranean evil death cult. As usual, one of them appears to only have "good at computers" as his skill, which, I'm not denying is useful, but did make him seem a little extraneous when the gang was lining up together for a fist-fight.

Scattered thoughts follow:
  • Though a Marvel series (is it part of the MCU continuity? I'm not sure), its focus on a group of high schoolers meant that for me it gives off strong vibes of Buffy and Veronica Mars. It's not as good as either of those shows, but even being grouped together in the same thought as such august company is a good sign.
  • I'm a sucker for shows which portray villains as regular people with basically regular lives and motivations, and Runaways very much does that for the parents. They are not, by and large, mustache-twirling evildoers toasting their plans to bring hell and brimstone down on the world.
  • The strength of the show is in the actors. All of the main players, both adult and teenager (though its most impressive in the latter) are very strong. Even though the kids are in some ways archetypes (The jock! The goth! The perfect daughter!), they nonetheless feel fully realized and complex.  I even can overlook the strangeness of James Marsters not sounding like Spike (for the record, he's an American actor--it's the British accent in Buffy that's a put-on)!
  • Also on that note, the kids all are recognizably the children of their parents without being clones, which is very nicely done.
  • Of the parents, the Yorkes (the nerdy over-sharing Jewish scientists) are my favorites. They're freakin' adorable.
  • Of the kids, nominally Molly is supposed to be younger than the rest, but she doesn't actually look any younger. But for the most part, that isn't a huge distraction. Also, that she's perpetually taking naps in the aftermath of big dramatic moments is a nice character beat -- the little peanut is all tuckered out!
  • The weakness of the show is the story, and in particular the story's pacing. They really slow-walk the core mystery of the show. A full season in, and we still have barely any idea what exactly the bad guys are trying to do, or even who they really are. The result is a great cast fighting against a very shaky script.
  • The opening theme music is very evocative. It reminds me of the Mass Effect: Andromeda opener, which I'm probably the only person who finds memorable.
Overall conclusion: it's pretty gripping in spite of itself, mostly because of a really strong cast. If you like Veronica Mars and Buffy, this won't replace those shows by any means, but you'll probably have a good time watching.

Friday, July 24, 2020

I Have To Talk About Omar and Melton-Meaux, Don't I?

I really don't want to. I really, really don't. But sometimes something falls too close to your wheelhouse to ignore it. And with separate antisemitism controversies hitting both Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and her main Democratic primary opponent Antone Melton-Meaux within a few days of one another, I -- writer on antisemitism and former resident of Minnesota's 5th congressional district -- probably can't sit this one out. As much as I want to. Which I do.

Both candidates are under some fire for things put in campaign communications. Melton-Meaux released an "FAQ" which included the questions "Why do you have so much support from Jewish people/pro-Israel people" and "Will the money you received from the Jewish community influence your policy decisions?" (to the latter of which he replied "no" and noted his opposition to many policies undertaken by Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu). Omar's allies said that by implying that Jews only care about Israel-related issues and supposedly conflating "Jewish people" and "pro-Israel people", he was invoking in veiled fashion a dual-loyalty trope.

Omar sent out a campaign mailer accusing Melton-Meaux of being in the pocket of conservative, big money interests, with all of the named donors being Jewish (plus a "Michael from Scarsdale, New York"). This was alleged by Omar's opponents to be an allusion to his opponent being "bought" by Jews (cf. fellow Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer (R) sending out a mailer naming three Jewish billionaires who had "bought" control of Congress).

What do I think?

Most importantly, while I don't think there is no fire behind this smoke, obviously a lot of the high dudgeon on display here from both sides is really just shots-of-opportunity. That's not exactly surprising, given the nature of politics and all, but still disappointing. I also reiterate my point that while people outside of the 5th District only care about this race for Israel/antisemitism/Islamophobia reasons, the dynamics within the district are generally concentrating on other things (including whether Rep. Omar is more concerned with her national profile than with the particular needs of her district).

On the specifics: Melton-Meaux's FAQ is clearly styled as responding to "questions" that amount to hostile whisper-campaigns (i.e., that he's a stalking horse for far-right Jewish and/or pro-Israel interests). On one level, this is why I don't really see the first question as conflating "Jewish" and "pro-Israel" -- aside from the fact that they are listed separately, in context it denotes two variants of a similar question he receives (and the questioners probably aren't too fastidious about the distinction).

But the problem with such whisper-campaigns is that it can be really hard to respond directly to the allegation without in some way legitimizing or retrenching it. Imagine being asked if a candidate supports "the gay agenda" -- you can't really answer "yes" or "no", because the entire way the question is framed makes answering it a trap. This is why you don't accept your opponents' framing of questions, as any halfway competent campaign should know. Doing otherwise means you suddenly are putting out statements answering questions like, well, "Will the money you received from the Jewish community influence your policy decisions?" There's no good answer to that question, which is a good sign that Melton-Meaux shouldn't be asking it to himself. To the extent that some Jews cringe while reading it, he has no one to blame but himself.

As for Omar. While all of the named persons in her mailer are Jewish, none of them are specifically identified as Jewish (the theme of the mailer is that many of his opponents' donors are backing him solely because they hate her, which is probably true).  But on face, this doesn't distinguish her mailer from Emmer's, or Trump's 2016 "closing argument" ad which featured Hillary Clinton and then three Jews associated with money -- George Soros, Janet Yellen, and Lloyd Blankfein (none of whom were explicitly identified as Jewish either). For those in the right circles, Scarsdale is well-known as a very Jewish and very rich town (hence its appearance in the "JAP battle rap", featuring "two hard-as-nails she-brews from SCARSDALE!"). It is fair to say that few people in Minnesota are likely to know this though (had she called out donors from St. Louis Park, by contrast, everyone in her district would know what she meant even as nobody outside the Twin Cities would have a clue).

On the whole, my real takeaway is feeling more convinced than ever about the need to think about antisemitism less as a question of motives and more as a question of impact. It strikes me as implausible that Melton-Meaux was intentionally trying to antagonize the Jewish community by loudly disavowing his support; it was an awkward effort by a novice campaign staff to respond to a smear -- but one that nonetheless retrenched the perception that the Jewish community is a force one needs to declare his independence from. Melton-Meaux may be a political newbie, but he has an obligation to be attentive to that dynamic and not blunder into traps quite that obvious.

With respect to Omar, I likewise find it highly unlikely that her campaign staff went on a hunt for rich Jewish donors to her opponent in a sly bid to dog-whistle at her opponent being owned by the Jews. Nonetheless, it is probably the case that the Jewish associations of the people cited -- while not likely to be picked up by many if not most of her readers -- likely do help make the attack land more effectively for those who do spot the pattern. I've written elsewhere about how one thing antisemitism does is it greases the wheels of plausibility; when you're trying to tag your opponent as in the bag for big Wall Street money (or Marxism, or "globalism" for that matter) it just feels more right when there's a Jewish hook to go along with it. It's in accord with deep-seated background intuitions, it makes the entire package feel more harmonious. This is one reason why I think someone in the Omar campaign could have reasonably been expected to check and see whether everyone they're talking about is Jewish -- and if not, find some different names (one has to think that there are some non-Jewish rich people who also are pumping money into her opponent's campaign, yes?).

But ultimately, I think this is all relatively small fries. The hypocrisy is perhaps more bothersome than anything else. I get the frustration from Omar's allies that they think she's constantly being pelted with small-ball nonsense on the antisemitism front, and so perhaps they think turnabout is fair play when they can accuse Omar's opponent of being the "dual loyalty" trope guy (you can almost feel the catharsis from here!). But either they think stuff at this level is fair game or they don't; they can't have it both ways unless they really do believe that antisemitism can legitimately be treated as instrumental political football. And on the other side, regarding the conservative media ready to stand up and shout about "yet another instance of Ilhan Omar being antisemitic!" -- unless they're willing to concede that the bulk of the Jewish community was absolutely correct in saying that the contemporary GOP, what with its brazen targeting of Soros, Bloomberg, Steyer, etc., is shot through with antisemitism from root to branch, they need to sit the hell down. As always, however strong or weak you think the case for Ilhan Omar being antisemitic is, it's far less strong than the case for the GOP being antisemitic. If I have to listen to one more attempted gotcha from the Republican Jewish Coalition about Jewish Democrats staying out of the 5th District endorsement game, when they're affirmatively trying to put this guy into a Minnesota U.S. Senate seat, I'm going to have an aneurysm.

Okay, I've done my duty. As a palate-cleanser, please read this lovely column by a Minnesota Jewish Republican explaining, in touching and heart-felt terms, why he considers Ilhan Omar a dear friend. It really is a nice piece of writing from a man whom I have to assume has decided he never wants to have any role in Republican Party politics again, because any public dictation about Ilhan Omar that's friendlier than "she's a she-devil" is grounds for immediate ex-communication from the party. And, just so nobody thinks I'm endorsing one way or the other (I'm not, and will not), read as well this column from Avi Olitzky explaining why he is such a fan of Melton-Meaux.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Rate That Apology, Part 10: Ted Yoho

I was going to do a "rate that apology" entry for Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL), who reportedly called Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) a "fucking bitch" after a heated conversation about their differing policy views (Yoho denies saying that, claiming he instead called her comments "bullshit"). But Chris Cilliza in essence beat me to it. There's a transcript of Yoho's "apology" at the link, but in sum Yoho:

  • Says he apologizes for  "for the abrupt manner of the conversation I had," whatever that means.
  • Maybe denies saying the words at all, but maybe not? He says "The offensive name calling, words attributed to me by the press were never spoken to my colleagues and if they were construed that way, I apologize for their misunderstanding."
  • Concludes by affirmatively refusing to apologize "for my passion or for loving my God, my family and my country." Dude, nobody asked you to.
Ocasio-Cortez does not appear to have accepted this apology, pointing out that Yoho "didn't even say my name."

Grade: 2.5/10

Friday, July 17, 2020

What Do Ilhan Omar and Eliot Engel Have in Common?

I fully expect Rep. Ilhan Omar to cruise to victory in the upcoming Minnesota congressional primary election, notwithstanding the eye-popping amount of money raised by challenger Antone Melton-Meaux. But if she does end up losing her race, it will be an almost mirror image of New York Rep. Eliot Engel's apparent primary loss to Jamaal Bowman -- in that (a) the outside world mostly cares about the race because of Israel and (b) the actual reason for the challenger's success will be the incumbent's failure to pay sufficient attention to their home district.

It's flown under the radar, but (speaking as someone who used to reside in Omar's district, before she became congresswoman) there have been recurrent complaints that Omar has been weak on constituent services and local issues. Like Bowman, Melton-Meaux may be attracting outside money because of foreign policy, but his campaign focus is very much tailored to the local.

Ultimately, while the frustrations Melton-Meaux is tapping into are real among Democratic stakeholders in the Twin Cities, I suspect Omar is going to be fine in the primary -- she still seems relatively popular in her district. But the parallel between her situation and Engel's nonetheless amuses me greatly.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Blog of Ratings: Insurance Company Mascots

Apropos of nothing, my ranking of the various television insurance company mascots and spokespersons (from best to worst):

  1. Geico Gecko
  2. Flo (Progressive)
  3. Mayhem (Allstate)
  4. J.K. Simmons (Farmers)
  5. "Jake from State Farm" (original)
  6. Flo's coworkers (Progressive)
  7. Dennis Haysbert (Allstate)
  8. Aflac Duck
  9. "Jake from State Farm" (new)
  10. Peyton Manning (Nationwide)
  11. Geico Caveman
  12. The General (The General)
  13. Limu Emu (and Doug) (Liberty Mutual)
Also, while they don't represent an insurance company, the Cricket Wireless monsters come in last place because they're that terrible.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

My Thoughts on the Weiss Resignation

You may have heard that Bari Weiss has not-so-quietly resigned from her position at the New York Times. Her publicly-posted resignation letter is a wide-spanning critique of the culture at the Times and what she takes to be a narrowing of the bounds of acceptable opinion and intellectual curiosity.

I have a few thoughts, in no particular order of importance:

  • I have never been particularly impressed with the bulk of Bari Weiss' work, or her general "cancel culture/fearlessly asking the questions" oeuvre. I've often found it to be lazy, self-satisfied, and/or hypocritical. I don't think she has a coherent theory distinguishing "criticism" (good) from "cancellation" (bad), and most damningly, I don't think she seems to even recognize that there's a tension here that appears to be resolved in a partisan way (my retort is criticism, yours is cancellation).
  • That said, Weiss is not even close to the only major political pundit who embodies these vices. The degree to which she nonetheless became, for many, the public avatar of those sins always made me uncomfortable, because it always felt like it was tied up to her identity as a prominent Jewish woman. Call it misojewny, call it antisemisogyny, but it stunk.
  • The eagerness with which people bring up Weiss' college escapades (she participated in projects which exposed the allegedly anti-Israel/antisemitic practices of several professors at Columbia, where she was a student) is a bit to gloating in nature for my tastes (again, many public figures have done things while in college that are not fully thought out or perfectly-tailored to keep a pristine PR file). However, consistent with my above sense that Weiss lacks a theory distinguishing "good" versus "bad" critical counterspeech, she isn't helped by the fact that she hasn't to my knowledge even seriously grappled with the tension in this issue close to her heart. A more thoughtful participant in these debates might have drawn upon her experience seeking to "cancel" figures for alleged antisemitism to be more sympathetic to other actors who seek to "cancel" figures for alleged racism. Weiss did not usually extend that sympathy, and so the juxtaposition is going to reflect poorly on her.
  • In her letter, Weiss claims that the terms which describe what happened to her are "unlawful discrimination, hostile work environment, and constructive discharge. I’m no legal expert. But I know that this is wrong." She is, indeed, no legal expert. The conduct she describes in the letter -- whether it is "wrong" or not -- would be very unlikely to sustain a legal complaint for unlawful discrimination, hostile work environment, or constructive discharge. 
  • Weiss' confusion is in line with something I've noticed from many conservative observers of anti-discrimination law. They wildly underestimate how high the barriers are to winning a discrimination claim -- probably because they're ideologically committed to the notion that minorities get their discrimination claims rubber-stamped (when the reality is such claims are overwhelmingly rejected by the courts, often before reaching a jury). So when they experience something that is in the family of discrimination, they assume that (a) it must be illegal ("if these whiny minorities are winning, surely my very real pain and trauma must present a winning case too!")and (b) if it isn't treated as illegal, that must be because of some latent anti-conservative(/white/male/whatever) bias, rather than the normal functioning of a legal system they generally endorse.
  • On the other hand, if we step away from the legal aspect of it all I think few of the people mocking Weiss' contention that the environment at the Times had gotten so toxic that she had to resign take the same view when members of other minority groups write of toxic environments in their workplaces that end up driving them out of prestigious jobs. Surely, we on the left are familiar enough with, and historically expressed enough sympathy towards, this style of claim such that the current sneering mockery -- LOL, someone claims that coworkers being mean to them made working at their job impossible -- rings hollow. Of course, many of those sympathetic to Weiss would be derisive of claims of this sort when made by members of other minority groups. Hypocrisy, as always, is a double-edged sword.
  • Weiss situates her initial hiring as an effort by the Times to understand Trump voters, and I've seen several writers lamenting her departure defending her presence along that line -- that it's important to have voices like her available to liberals because, after all, almost half the country backs Donald Trump. This argument is a bit odd, though, since Weiss was not herself a Trump-backer either. I've alluded to this problem before in relation to how one justifies hiring "conservative" voices at mainstream newspapers -- is the goal to reflect the views that are held by a large portion of the populace, or is the goal to legitimate certain views which are thought to present genuinely important and worthy contributions to public debate? Weiss' defenders effectively are claiming the former as a defense against the latter -- even if Weiss' opinions aren't objectively all that worthwhile, it's important to hear them lest liberal NYT readers silo themselves off from views which carry support in a considerable swath of the country. But the issue with Weiss is that she doesn't actually reflect the modal example of a pro-Trump opinion in American politics -- the modal pro-Trump perspective would level opinions far more grotesque than anything Weiss ever produced. Ironically, Weiss was hired by the Times because she misrepresents the average content of contemporary conservative viewpoints by giving them a patina of liberal plausibility that makes them more palatable to a liberal audience. Actual conservatives right now scarcely bother with the patina.

Monday, July 13, 2020

ZoomZoom Roundup

I just finished my first week teaching over Zoom (undergraduate Constitutional Law). So far, it's going decently well I think -- considerably more interactive than I had anticipated, which is a good thing. But it does take a fair amount of concentration to keep my eyes on the ball for two consecutive hours. Thank god for breakout rooms (just remember to unmute yourself when you bring people back....).

* * *

British voters think Keir Starmer's competence contrasts nicely with Boris Johnson's ineptitude. Amazing what having a leader who isn't a widely-reviled extremist can do for a left-wing party.

When it comes to whether "Jews are indigenous to Israel", I'm less interested in the tiresome Twitter brouhaha than I am in this really thoughtful essay on the subject in Tikkun Magazine.

Long interview with Harvard Law Professor Larry Tribe on occasion of his retirement. Come for the stories of him growing up in Shanghai as a Jewish refugee, stay for the tale of how the Supreme Court Justices determined whether movies were "obscene".

A very interesting article by Roseanna Summers in the Yale Law Journal asking what everyday people think counts as "consent".

I'd much rather focus on Zach Banner than on DeSean Jackson, if it's all the same to you.

We could have beaten coronavirus, but unfortunately one of our two political parties has turned into a death cult. July is going to be rough.

Word is that Washington's football team soon won't be named after a racial slur.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

What Will Happen That Night?

I can imagine the moment: When the networks agree that Joe Biden has defeated Donald Trump and will become the next President of the United States.

But it's hard to imagine the very next moment. Which, in itself, is a sign of how bizarre and precarious our political era is right now.

We all wonder if Donald Trump will actually concede, even if he's clearly losing. Which is a scary thought on its own. But suppose he does concede. What does a Donald Trump concession speech even sound like? I literally can't imagine it. I have no idea what he'd say.

Meanwhile, there are some standard phrases one gives when accepting a concession -- ran a strong campaign blah blah blah thank you for your service blah blah blah unite as a country. But, even as platitudes, can you really say those things about Donald Trump? Joe Biden doesn't strike me as the sort of man to deviate from tradition on this front, but I wonder who will be the first to demand we condemn Biden as soft on fascism because he mouths some meaningless rhetoric of graciousness.

It's a night I can't imagine. So I sure do hope I get to live through it.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Should I PlagueWatch It?: Gentleman Jack

I remember seeing ads for Gentleman Jack when Game of Thrones was ending, and being intrigued. The show is about the real-life Anne Lister, and 18th century British landowner who dressed in masculine clothes and lived relatively openly as a lesbian and is often cited as participating in England's first (non-legally sanctioned) same-sex marriage to her partner Ann Walker.

But I never did see it then, and it was only the rapidly dwindling stockpile of television brought upon by the lockdown that finally caused me to watch it (seriously: I think I've seen every good episode of Community -- which is most of them -- at least a dozen times at this point). Should you join me? Some quick thoughts to help you decide:

  • The early episodes (and, as I recall, the advertising), leans pretty hard into a "she's a badass landlady! Look at her collecting rents from the tenants without mercy or tolerating any nonsense!" framing. This is a bit odd to watch in the present political moment.
  • It is a sign of how far we've come as a society that this series could even be made -- not because it features a lesbian relationship, but because even ten years ago I think it would've been seen as homophobic the way that she "recruits" (she may even use the word) Ann Walker to be her lover.
  • Yes, the two characters are named Anne and Ann. It's not that confusing. Usually. But keeping all the other side characters straight is a nearly impossible endeavor.
  • My reaction towards Ann Walker generally took the following arc, occurring over two episode cycles: "Damn, that woman is messed up." "Oh wow, she's had a really tragic life though." "But damn that woman is messed up!" "Oh my gosh, there's just an endless reservoir of tragedy for her isn't there?"
  • The show also features Gemma Whelan, aka Yara Greyjoy, as Anne's far more conventionally feminine sister Marian. It's very interesting to see Whelan play a character that is about as far from Yara as possible. But the show does something I very much like in resisting the cliched juxtaposition of the liberated, modern Anne against the straightlaced, intolerant, conservative Marian. They clearly have a somewhat antagonistic relationship, but it seems to have almost nothing to do with Anne's sexuality. Moreover, it is made evident at various points that Marian is in many respects more liberal than her sister -- particularly with regards to class issues and respectful treatment of servants. In all, Anne's family is shown to be pretty well accepting of her.
  • My head canon is that this show is the prequel to Downton Abbey, and I refuse to be dissuaded on the point.
Jill and I are a sucker for a good period drama, preferably one without gratuitous violence, and Gentleman Jack scratches that itch. Is it transcendent? No. But it's worth a watch if you're into the genre.

Friday, July 03, 2020

Come 2021, Jews Should Prepare for a "Stabbed in the Back" Narrative from the Right

A recurrent feature on this blog are conservative commentators who are just baffled that Jews vote Democrat. Don't we realize that Republicans are our best friend? When we will be come to our senses.

In general, the tone of my posts is relatively jocular -- it amuses me to watch Republicans twist themselves into an emotional knot, unable to grasp why Jews continue to be such a reliable Democratic voting bloc. It's funny because the conservative disbelief is based on their own willful blindness to the priorities of most Jews. They assume that Jews (a) only care about Israel and (b) express "caring" about Israel in terms of providing carte blanche support to the most right-ward manifestations of Israeli politics towards Palestinians. In reality, the eternal mystery of why Jews vote Democrat is not that difficult to solve. It boils down to two things:
First, on every issue aside from Israel, Jews prefer Democrats to Republicans.
Second, on the issue of Israel, Jews prefer Democrats to Republicans.
But I think, if Joe Biden wins in 2020, we might have to brace ourselves for this sentiment to evolve in a more dangerous direction. In 2020, Jews will undoubtedly vote much the same way they've always voted: for the Democrat, in overwhelming numbers. From the vantage of the right, this will be especially inexplicable. Trump moved the embassy. He recognized the annexation of the Golan. He gave the green light to West Bank annexation. He's called Ilhan Omar an antisemite literally dozens of times. What more could Jews want?

If Republicans were truly interested in engaging with Jews as political equals, this might invite some introspection: maybe what Republicans think Jews want (endless occupation coupled with Islamophobic hysteria) is not what Jews actually want. But introspection in the face of Jewish critiques is not exactly a Republican strong suit. So what's more likely is for befuddlement to transform into resentment. The ungrateful Jews -- we gave them everything and yet still they defy us! A philo-semite is an antisemite who loves Jews, the saying goes, and it doesn't take much for obsessive unrequited love to turn into seething passionate hatred. When the turn comes, it will come quickly.

More so than at any point in my lifetime, the Republican Party under Trump has latched onto a self-identification as "friend of the Jews", our bold centurions standing between us and the antisemitic hordes of the radical left and the Muslims. This self-image has thus far been more or less impervious to the Jewish identification of the Republican Party under Trump as the prime driver of antisemitic hate and violence threatening Jews in America today. So when Jews in the next election do what we've done in every other election -- vote Democratic by overwhelming margins -- it will be seen as not just inexplicable, but a betrayal.

The tides of Trumpism have already paved the way for a resurgence of right-wing antisemitism -- we're already seeing it manifest in Soros conspiracies and "globalism" and "replacement theory". I firmly believe that the only reason it hasn't gotten more explicit is the historical accident that Trump has Jewish relatives. But Trumpism after Trump will not be so constrained (one already hears murmurings to the effect that Trump's decaying political fortunes are the fault of Jared Kushner). The right is primed and ready to accept a message of Jewish perfidy, and it will be accelerated by the GOP's wounded insistence that they are entitled to our adoration.

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

How To Lose a Primary, 2020-Style

So far in 2020, four House incumbents have lost renomination to their seats (five if you count New York Democrat Eliot Engel, though absentee ballots in New York haven't been tabulated). But there are ... differences between what causes a Republican and a Democrat to lose their own party's nomination.

For example, Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) was one of the most conservative members of his caucus -- opposing abortion rights, gay rights, and Obmaa care -- despite representing a D+6 seat. If you're wondering how he got elected in the first place, the answer is that the seat was previously held by his own father who -- in classic machine fashion -- won renomination and then announced his retirement, inducing the local party to hand the nomination to his son. He was defeated by Marie Newman, who narrowly lost a challenge in 2018 and by all appearances is a perfectly normal Democrat. This is not at all abnormal.

Contrast that to what happened last night, where Rep. Scott Tipton (R-CO) was stunningly unseated by conservative activist Lauren Boebert. Nobody had the race on their radar because Tipton, who enjoyed Trump's endorsement, hardly seemed to have committed any sins against the conservative movement which would generate primary opposition (The Onion notwithstanding). So what was it about Boebert which caused her to surge to victory? Well, she's a qAnon-endorsing conspiracy theorist whose main claim to fame is running a bar called "Shooters" where the staff openly carries guns and which defied orders to shutdown in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic.

Of course, it's not always better when the incumbent loses because of their apostasies -- particularly when one considers what counts as "apostasy" in the modern GOP. Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-VA) also enjoyed Trump's backing, but lost renomination in a "drive-through convention" to far-right challenger Bob Good. Riggleman's wrongdoing? He officiated a same-sex wedding for two of his former staffers. That's enough to get you bounced in the 2020 Republican Party.

But I guess Republicans did manage to dislodge their most openly White supremacist member this  year -- so good on them for that.

Monday, June 29, 2020

What's the Right Way To Oppose Annexation?

After last year's Yom Kippur, I wrote about a question I posed to some foreign affairs mavens at my synagogue regarding what is the "right" way to pressure or induce Israel in furtherance of American policy objectives. We spend a lot of time talking about what's off the table (e.g., no BDS) -- okay, fine, but what is on the table?

This question, I think, needs to rise back to the forefront of our mind as Israel contemplates annexation. Annexation does not enjoy the avowed support of most American Jewish organizations, but there is deep ambivalence over what tangibly those organizations will do if annexation nonetheless proceeds. The AJC has already announced it will defend annexation if Israel chooses it (it complained that the headline "We'll defend annexation if needed" was misleading, but the article text literally says "If annexation ... comes to pass, we will make the strongest possible case" for it). The ADL apparently will not defend annexation but is cagey on what forms of opposition it will and won't support (more on them in a second).

But this is a conversation we need to have now. When a foreign nation does something we don't like, opposition can mean a wide variety of things, from "quiet grumbling" to "send in the troops". Hopefully, nobody is suggesting invading Israel to stop annexation; likewise, any serious opponent of annexation needs to agree to something more than just a murmured "it wouldn't be my choice but ...." Between those poles, though, there's a lot of space to maneuver.

Which brings us back to the ADL. A few days ago, Jewish Currents made a big splash when it wrote about a leaked ADL memo outlining proposed strategies for responding to annexation. One reason I often give JC a side-eye is that they let their political slant so nakedly seep into their reporting that I don't have confidence that they're reliable relays of the views of their interlocutors. I don't think they'd falsify quotes or anything like that, but the interpretations they make and they inferences they draw are self-serving and often quite dubious. And unfortunately, here they for some reason did not to my knowledge release a copy of the memo itself, meaning we're relying heavily on them for both content and analysis. Yet reading between the lines, there seems to be a disjuncture between what JC imputes to the ADL, and the words they actually quote from the ADL's memo.

The memo, for example, makes clear that the ADL will not be defending annexation or Netanyahu, and that there must be "space for local and national leaders to express their criticism of Israel’s [annexation] decision." Moreover, it is particularly attuned to the problem where criticism of the critics falls disproportionately on the heads on prominent minority figures, and cautions that this must be avoided as well. On the other hand, the memo also suggests that it will oppose certain legislative actions that would impose more tangible punishment on Israel. The primary focus of the memo appears to be on relationship managing with major Democratic figures (particular in the CBC and other minority caucuses) -- respecting the validity of criticizing annexation while wanting to avoid a brush war akin to l'affair Omar.

Yet you'd barely get any of this from the tone of the JC article (and it is accordingly not at all how the article has been largely received). The article rather presents the ADL as plotting to sabotage anti-annexation politics and undermining opposition to the policy; its concerns about relationship-preservation and avoiding flashpoints seen as a barely-disguised attempt to muzzle all but the most perfunctory and non-threatening murmurs of discontent. In the course of accusing the ADL of seeking to undermine opposition to annexation,  the JC barely even admits that the ADL explicitly indicates it will not be defending annexation (in sharp contrast to the AJC). The tone of the article is that, insofar as it is seeking to moderate language and concerned about preserving relationships, the ADL in effect is running interference for annexation even as it pretends to oppose it. All Jewish organizations have an obligation to support whatever proposals or  rhetoric end up emerging under the banner of anti-annexation politics -- and any organization which doesn't commit to doing that should be seen as disingenuous in opposing annexation to begin with. It is reminiscent to a complaint about "tone-policing" -- that given the major looming injustice of annexation, any attempt to contest particular anti-annexation rhetoric or proposals as too extreme or aggressive should be seen as a means of deflecting attention away from the bigger issue.

The problem is that the ADL is absolutely right and reasonable to be concerned that valid concern and opposition to annexation could spiral into something a lot uglier and less defensible, and that Jewish organizations should absolutely be on the lookout to tamp down on flashpoints. And more to the point, we're already seeing some of this ugliness explicitly defended on exactly the argument the JC proffers. Over in the UK, we're seeing a clear version of this at the intersection of two significant actions by the Labour Party leadership: first, sacking Rebecca Long-Bailey from the Labour shadow cabinet after she praised an article falsely accusing Israel of being behind the chokehold tactics used against George Floyd, and second the announcement that if annexation proceeds Labour will back a settlement boycott. The line from the Corbyn diehards is, more or less, that the decision regarding the former means the latter doesn't count; that in the time of annexation if you're objecting to conspiracy theories about Israel being behind racism in American policing, you don't truly oppose annexation at all (read some of the replies!).

There are, in other words, two horns to the dilemma. On the one hand, it is absolutely reasonable to insist that annexation by Israel needs to be met with real, tangible consequences, and that the ADL and other Jewish groups must not obstruct that. And it's entirely plausible that the range of responses that the ADL deems "acceptable" will be too narrow and too weak, and if that turns out to be the case they should be criticized for it. Theoretical opposition to annexation cannot be paired with practical opposition to any and all tangible moves taken against it. That's why we need to start thinking now not just about our redlines of what goes "too far", but the alternatives of  "what's in bounds". If we can't give a realistic answer to that, then it will indeed be hard to take "opposition" to annexation seriously.

But on the other hand, recognizing the need for tangible action does not entail stepping aside and accepting any policy or rhetoric that styles itself as "action". Any time a foreign nation undertakes a provocation, one will see arguments for taking a hardline and arguments for defusing tensions, and it is a lie that only the hardest of hardliners are taking the provocation "seriously". If "opposition to annexation" spills over into "racism in America is the product of an Israeli plot and how dare you call that out as antisemitic with annexation on the table?", that's the sort of thing which doesn't help anyone -- not Jews, not Israelis, not Palestinians, not Black people. Trying to avoid that outcome -- preventing righteous tailored fury from bursting into an unbounded and uncontrollable conflagration -- is neither illegitimate, nor wishy-washy.

If -- God forbid -- Israel carries through with annexation, my hope is that the response of American progressives everything necessary to clearly communicate its unacceptability and to promise proportionate consequences, and nothing that pours unnecessary fuel on the fire or seeks to sabotage the relationship between Jews and our allies. It's a large ask. But if it is to happen, it will require both moral courage -- to call an injustice an injustice and respond accordingly, as well as empathic connections -- to maintain relationships of care and concern. Both prongs matter, and committing to one should not and must not be seen as sacrificing the other.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Rosa Diaz: The Face of Police Brutality

While it obviously is not anyone's top priority, many media observers have been wondering aloud about how Brooklyn Nine Nine will address the changing public perception of policing when it returns for its next season. Already, Terry Crews has suggested that several completed scripts have been scrapped as showrunners realize that they need to adapt. But it is going to be a very delicate line to walk. Since the show almost certainly is not going to return as a post office sitcom, it can't ignore the issue, or carry on as if the last few months haven't happened. Yet it probably can't do a full police abolition narrative, while if it takes a reformist approach it will be criticized for being too timid and out of touch.

As much as I love the show, I don't know if this is a hole it can write itself out of. But as I've thought about it, I keep on returning to one potential plotline:

Rosa Diaz gets kicked off the force for police brutality.

Now before I go further, I want to make two things clear.
(1) I adore Rosa Diaz. She's possibly my favorite character on the show. She's a queer icon. Stephanie Beatriz is a treasure.
(2) Rosa Diaz is definitely the main cast character most likely to physically abuse a suspect. Her whole character is based on her being violent, aggressive, and hot-tempered. She literally jokes about committing police brutality in the show's second episode!
It's not hard to imagine the scenario. Rosa is chasing a suspect through New York City alleys. She has to jump over dumpsters and garbage, she's hot, sweaty and frustrated. When she finally catches up with the guy at a dead end, she's basically snarling. And so even though he's cornered and not a threat, she takes him down -- hard. Which someone records, and it goes viral.

At this point, the squad divides. Jake, still hopped up on his childish notions on what it means to be a bad-ass cop, backs up his old friend from the academy; while Amy, in a new leadership position and more exposed to political fallout can't bring herself to defend Rosa's actions. Terry is sensitive to police brutality, having recently experienced a racist confrontation that nearly turned violent, and is surprised to learn that this is one area where Holt -- while not exactly approving -- is a man of his generation of cops, thinking that a rough take down of a suspect is business as usual and not worth getting riled up about. Hitchcock and Scully choose opposing sides for arbitrary reasons. Boyle is paralyzed by indecision.

Jake seizes on the notion that if he can prove the suspect really was guilty of a crime, Rosa's actions will be seen as justified. He works the case feverishly until he eventually discovers that the man Rosa injured had some drugs in his apartment -- a triumph, until Amy points out the obvious so what? So what if the guy smoked a few joints? Does that mean he deserved to be abused? Is Jake really going with "he's no angel"?

And so the resolution is not that Rosa is let off the hook, or learns a valuable lesson, or has the squad unite behind her. The resolution is that Rosa is fired from the NYPD (and, I imagine, written off the show).

Does it have to be Rosa? Could it be a random Nine Nine beat cop we had never seen before instead? No. It has to be Rosa, because it has to be someone we care about. The problem of police abuses is misjudged if it's viewed as the product of a few sadists hidden from public view. Those people exist, but the larger issue is that police abuse occurs by men and women who are in other respects normal, likable, courageous -- people who do good things, have friends who care about them and who care about others, people who in other contexts may do good or even heroic deeds. The Florida cop who attacked a peaceful protester, the one with 79 use of force complaints in three years? He also stopped a suicidal woman from jumping off a bridge. I bring this up not as an excuse -- just the opposite. It is to hammer home the gravity of the problem. This is the banality of evil at work; we deceive ourselves if we think it is a problem that is restricted just to some anonymous snarling monsters. We have to get used to the idea that police violence (like all injustices) are perpetrated by people who look familiar to us.

It has to be Rosa because it has to be someone who has already been fully fleshed out as a human, with the full array of human relationships and feelings and sentiments and history that humans carrying with them. It has to be someone we care about. Only that will give the issue the gravity it deserves.

Israel as Contagion

There's a narrative bubbling in certain areas of the left which seeks to tie American policing abuses to cross-training exchange programs some police departments do with Israeli counterparts. The narrative has its roots in Jewish Voice for Peace's "Deadly Exchange" campaign, which uses the claim as a means of further its campaign to see Israel isolated and ostracized in global society. As the issue of police violence surges to its place at the top of the public's deliberative agenda, the deadly exchange claim likewise attracted those eager for a anti-Israel or antisemitic hook. Just yesterday, new Labour leader Keir Starmer sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey -- a prominent Jeremy Corbyn ally and one-time rival for party leadership -- from her position in Labour's shadow cabinet after she approvingly shared an article where actress Maxine Peake claimed, without evidence, that "The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services."

This is not true. Many have cited an Amnesty International report where, they say, it is proven that Israeli police train their American counterparts in human rights violations. But Amnesty has since come out and said explicitly that "Allegations that US police were taught tactics of ‘neck kneeling’ by Israeli secret services is not something we’ve ever reported." This is not surprising, as the content of these exchange programs by all accounts rarely, if ever, focuses on what we might euphemistically call "interpersonal" or "tactical" elements of police activity (it generally concentrates on strategic questions regarding operational responses to mass atrocities -- a subject upon which Israeli security forces sadly carry much expertise).

So what is going on? The stock response from those objecting to the link is the simple but truthful observation that American police hardly need Israeli help on the subject of how to harass racial minorities. Some have argued that, because it is true that there are Israeli and American policing exchange programs (and apparently some Minneapolis officers had partaken), it is ipso facto fair to draw a connection between American abuses and those training seminars -- without any regard to what actually is or is not done in those programs. The argument, in effect, a contagion theory: anyone who associates with Israelis, we can assume, is at least partially corrupted by the contact. They're worse off coming out than coming in.

In apologizing for her comment, Peake said something very interesting: she said "I was inaccurate in my assumption of American police training and its sources." Assumption is the key word there: she had, presumably, read about Israeli and American police training together, and so she assumed that the bad American practices had Israeli roots. But the only evidence was the bare fact of contact -- that's what's driving the narrative. Hence: contagion.

This, I submit, is something antisemitism does. It allows such assumptions to become naturalized. They feel right. American police have done exchange training with counterparts in dozens of other countries, ranging from the UK to Germany to Mexico to Tanzania. Even those who take a dim view of, say, the Mexican police however would likely not jump from mere contacts to causality. If someone said "American police learned chokeholds from Tanzanian police," they'd ask for evidence. If the only evidence is "there are exchange programs between American and Tanzanian police", that likely wouldn't be sufficient. But antisemitism gives a smoother cognitive ride down -- it makes little connections look huge, and implausible leaps seem manageable. It is not accidental that the narrative is about Israeli police exchanges and not German or Mexican or Tanzanian ones.

This is an unorthodox but I think ultimately more accurate way of understanding what antisemitism does. We think of antisemitism often as a motive: because I hate Jews, I think or say or do this thing. But antisemitism is more often a force or process. We usually ask "did Burke or Long-Bailey say what they say because they hate Jews?" The answer to that may well be no. But that's not the right question. The right question is "did a particular way of thinking about Jews render what Burke or Long-Bailey said plausible or resonant in a way it otherwise would not have been?" And there I think it is quite clear that the answer is yes. It is because we think about Jews in a particular way that this contagion theory of Israeli culpability in American policing injustices -- a narrative which objectively stands on such a thin reed -- is plausible when it otherwise wouldn't be. That is the work of antisemitism.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Primary Day Predictions (Kentucky and New York)

It's primary day in America, with some big races in Kentucky and especially New York. Why not lay down a marker  of some predictions?

Kentucky Senate: McGrath defeats Booker. Over/under: 15 point margin.

NY-03: Tom Suozzi (incumbent)

NY-09: Yvette Clark (incumbent) -- but with less than 50%.

NY-10: Jerry Nadler (incumbent)

NY-12: Carolyn Maloney (incumbent)

NY-14:  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,(incumbent), and it's not close.

NY-15: Richie Torres breaks from the pack and defeats the loathsome Ruben Diaz Sr.

NY-16: Jamaal Bowman defeats Eliot Engel (incumbent) by a surprisingly comfortable margin (~10 points).

NY-17: Mondaire Jones in a tight race.

Keep in mind: I'm not very good at predicting things. But we'll see how I do?


Saturday, June 20, 2020

After Bostock, Was It All Worth It?

It's been interesting to watch conservative reactions to the Bostock decision (holding that Title VII's prohibition on sex discrimination encompasses anti-gay and anti-trans discrimination, because that discrimination necessarily is also "because of" sex). Some of the usual suspects have been relatively muted -- likely because the outcome the Court reached is actually overwhelmingly popular. But there certainly are some on the right who are very upset. Josh Blackman collects anonymous examples here. Right-wing commentator Josh Hammer urges conservative judges to abandon procedural legal reasoning entirely in favor of an unabashed substantive commitment to social conservative principlesSenator Josh Hawley claimed the decision represents "the end of the conservative legal movement."

It's more than just Joshes, of course. And the theme of this critique is, as Hawley alludes to, the question of whether it was all worth it. The claim is that social conservatives, at least, have been holding their noses and voting Republican for years because "the judiciary". But if the conservative judiciary gives them results like these, is the bargain really worth it? The murmur is that after Bostock, the jig is up, and conservatives will no longer come out to support a GOP whose judges have betrayed them.

If you're a liberal reading this, it's rather striking. The undisguised insistence that judges should vote in alignment with conservative policy objections (up to and including explicitly disavowing neutral legal proceduralism!) is amazing to see -- less because of the content and more because it's being said out loud. But more incredible is the idea that this Supreme Court has represented anything less than a massive triumph for contentious right-wing causes. The Court of Citizens United, of Trump v. Hawaii, of Hobby Lobby, of Janus, of Masterpiece Cakeshop -- none of that registers? Is it really everything or nothing?

I, of course, heartily encourage social conservatives to adopt this reasoning and decide its not at all worth it. Rise up by sitting down, and showing the Republican Party what's what! But that's because it's obviously self-serving for me: the result of social conservatives staying home and fuming because the Supreme Court only backs them 80% of the time instead of 100% of the time is, in five or ten years, a Supreme Court that backs them 40% of the time.

Indeed, the most important lesson liberals could learn from watching, agape, the social conservative reaction is "if this strategy looks ridiculous to you coming from the right, it's equally farcical when it's threatened from the left." You don't win by staying home, and you're not playing hardball when you insist on everything.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

PlagueWatch Roundup

Instead of another "Should I PlagueWatch It?" entry, instead I'll just give quick thoughts on the TV I am, or have recently been, watching over the past few weeks.

*SPOILERS*

* * *

Billions

  • One of my favorite shows on TV, but I think this season is clearly its weakest. The show feels like it may have just run out of ideas. Last season was interesting because it positioned Taylor as an antagonist to both Axe and Rhodes, and they were a worthy foe who forced the duo to actually work together. That was interesting. But now we've slid back into comfortable terrain: Axe and Rhodes going after each other, Taylor in a supporting role.
  • Mike Prince just isn't that inspiring as an antagonist. If you need a fellow billionaire for Axe to go head-to-head with, bring back Rebecca Cantu (who of course now has a huge bone to pick with Axe).
  • Axe and Rhodes appear to be retrogressing as characters, and while it would be one thing if this was the result of especially heavy stresses being put upon them, right now they seem to be under objectively less pressure than at any point in the series.
  • I hate everything about how academia and contemporary students are portrayed. It's a lazy, zeitgeist-y take that doesn't reflect my experience as either a law school teacher or a student.
  • Seriously, what is Rhodes doing taking a bunch of basically unknown, untested, untrustworthy law students and putting them on a super-delicate case like going after the U.S. Treasury Secretary? And then -- I'm sorry, but (a) no student who cares about the Muslim ban is going to care about investigating Todd Krakow -- what a eye-rolling moment that was -- and (b) why wouldn't they assume that Chuck has additional information relevant to the case he just isn't telling them?
  • Slowly but surely, Kate Sacker gets a larger role. I approve of this.

Insecure

  • Arguably the show's strongest season. Issa, in particular, showed really strong forward momentum as a character.
  • To the extent the show meant to put roughly equal blame on Issa and Molly for their fight (and I'm not sure it did), it did not succeed. While Issa grew a lot, Molly came out looking really rough.
  • The crisis of the last episode was a very well done, but it would have been better if the show had dedicated more time to Kelli and Tiffany over the course of the season. Or the show in general. They really deserve to have some breathing room.
Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
  • My favorite entry on the "things that have lasted longer than the Confederacy" list, as it's gone seven seasons even though I think I'm the only person who's watched it. And I could not even begin to tell you the plot line from beginning to now.
  • That said, this season (the last) feels like a strong entry. Objectively, the plot is still as fuzzy as ever, but the core conceit (time travel to stop the bad guys from altering the past and changing the future!) is enough of a sci-fi staple that it's pretty easy to follow.
  • Sad we didn't get a true Agent Carter cameo.
  • Where are you, Agent Fitz?
Ultimate Tag
  • Objectively bad, but in an entertaining sort of way.
  • If you have a new show, you really can't do the "we're going to run some of our events while on commercial break, then recap them". We don't know how the events work!
  • I'm pretty sure I heard the hosts say things about so-and-so being "the fastest runner we've ever seen on this show" in the first episode.
  • The actual "events" are very, very poorly designed. The opening event ends up basically placing the runners in random order, depending on who happens to get singled out for a chase. You can effectively avoid the tagger for much longer than your competitors and still come in last. And then the point deficit is usually too much to overcome in the second event.
  • Every single tagger looks like they come straight out of 90s television. Also, some are clearly chosen for physical strength, even though that doesn't actually seem to be have any relevance to their job.
Titan Games
  • Slightly better than Ultimate Tag, mostly because The Rock is so adorably charismatic.
  • While I understand why one might think Ninja Warrior experience would translate well to this show, in reality it demands far more raw physical strength than the NBC staple. Hence, I was not surprised (though very sad) when Jessie Graff struggled.
  • I was more surprised at how much Claressa Shields underperformed, and given her personality I actually wonder whether it might do some lasting damage to her confidence.
Holey Moley
  • Didn't see the first season of this, and ABC is very stingy about making its back episodes available.
  • Joe Tessitore is very game. Rob Riggle is very annoying.
  • Even granting that it's mini-golf, and so intrinsically silly, this show maybe leans a little too hard on the wa-wa-wa-WACKO fun! energy.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Sweet Sixteen

Happy birthday to this blog, which turns 16 today!

As always, thanks to all the readers, new and old, who've decided to spend a little time on my plot of the internet.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Zioness Has Another Manifesto

Zioness, the progressive Zionist group, has released a new "activist's guide" on the issue of racial justice. It consists of:

  1. One page on the need to overcome implicit bias;
  2. One page on the need to "show up" for racial justice, even when one encounters antisemitism; and
  3. Six pages on how to respond to antisemitic tropes (many, though not all, Israel- or Zionism-related) one might encounter while engaging in racial justice work.

This distribution of attention -- centering antisemitism in a pamphlet supposedly focused on racial justice -- has caused Zioness to be the target of numerous social media dunks. I think many of them are deserved, albeit with a few minor reservations. Here are my quick thoughts:
  • From its inception, my primary critique of Zioness -- and I've expressed this personally to their leadership -- is that they resolutely refuse to declare what progressive values demand with respect to Israel. Their justification for their reticence is that they are a domestic policy organization -- a response that is never going to sit well for a group called "Zioness". And documents like this only emphasize why this stance is untenable: Zioness can't forward opinions about Israel and then say "we don't take a position on that" when people ask them to register opinions on Israel. It's a circle they're never going to be able to square, and until they steel themselves and have the guts to forthrightly say "progressivism demands X, Y and Z out of Israel", people are going to going to be justified in looking at them with a skeptical eye.
  • It may be that a guidebook offering suggestions on how to respond to antisemitic tropes a progressive Jew may encounter while engaging in racial justice activism would be useful. But if you're going to make such a resource, don't title it "Racial Justice: An Activist's Guide". An activist's guide to racial justice should center questions of racial justice -- period. This is the locus of the criticisms Zioness is getting over this document, and it is absolutely correct. Creating a document on "racial justice" that has barely any direct discussion of racial justice is almost impossibly cringe-worthy.
  • Of course, the possibility that it might be useful to have a guidebook on how to respond to antisemitism while engaging in racial justice work also poses the question of whether now is the right moment to center that conversation. There is, shall we say, good reason to be skeptical on this front.
  • What little substance there is on racial justice is, to be generous, perfunctory. I'm probably more attached to implicit bias as a useful framing device for understanding contemporary racism than many of my colleagues in the progressive world (it's falling out of vogue), and even I'd say that talking about that alone is woefully incomplete. This is a case where something is worse than nothing -- if they hadn't made the limp gesture towards talking about racial justice qua racial justice, maybe it would have been clear that this document was meant to serve a different purpose (namely, "Responding to Antisemitic Tropes in Racial Justice Activism"). Of course, if that purpose had been made evident it would have more clearly posed the question of whether now was the right time to center that conversation. See the previous bullet point.
  • I've seen for awhile now the allegation that Zioness is an "astroturf" organization. There's virtually no evidence this is true. Moreover, anyone who knows anything about the constitution of American Jewish community politics should very well know it isn't true. Anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the politics of the American Jewish community -- and Zioness' critics certainly are included -- knows that there are a great many American Jews who (a) have relatively conventional "pro-Israel" politics, (b) have relatively conventional progressive domestic politics, and (c) feel aggrieved when they see these two commitments treated as antithetical to one another. Even if one hates that particular political cocktail, surely there's no dispute about its prevalence. Given that, there's no grounding to the idea that Zioness, which centers its appeal to just that political intersection, could only have sprung up via artificial seeding.* Since I'm confident that Zioness' critics are not ignorant about the political composition of the American Jewish community, I'm equally confident that their use of "astroturf" is entirely as a slur (meaning something like "activist group with more conventional and less radical politics than mine"), not an analytical category.
  • Many of the document's critics have cast it as specifically focused on "defending Israel" rather than addressing antisemitism more broadly. Much of the "antisemitic tropes" they address are Israel-related, but not several are not (ex: "Jews were behind the Atlantic Slave Trade" or "White nationalism isn’t about Jews"). There's something interesting about this, because formally speaking the elision isn't necessary: the locus of the critique -- that, especially right now, the centerpiece of a document on "racial justice" should be "racial justice" -- would I think carry equal punch if Zioness' document were accurately described as talking about antisemitism. So why fudge the description? The answer is that the criticizing "Israel talk" is more comfortable terrain for many compared to criticizing "Jewish talk", and so we see activists instinctively slide into the former even in cases where analytically they're just as much talking about the latter.
The tl;dr is that Zioness is a regular grassroots organization with a pretty obvious base of support, pairing conventional pro-Israel views with conventional mainstream Democratic domestic views. That, on its own, isn't too remarkable. But the document they've produced on "racial justice" is (a) justly being mocked for having a barely even perfunctory focus on racial justice; (b) bad on its own terms; (c) poorly timed with regard to its actual-albeit-understated purpose, and (d) inadvertently demonstrative of how Zioness' ostensible commitment to being a purely "domestic policy organization" that can't be expected to take positions on what progressive values mean for Israel is untenable.

* The closest evidence one has for Zioness being "astroturf" comes from its early funding from the right-wing Lawfare Project and Brooke Goldstein. That would raise legitimate flags, except that Goldstein has been extremely vocal about how much she hates Zioness precisely because they refused to take the pseudo-left concern-troll line that she had expected out of them (which is to say, they've actually been independent). The fallout has gotten so intense that Zioness has outright blocked Goldstein on Twitter. Whatever Goldstein's initial intentions, she'd be the first to agree that Zioness has charted its own path.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Can the Conference Kick Out ZOA?

The Zionist Organization of America, helmed by far-right bombthrower Mort Klein, has been an embarrassment to American Jewry for a long time. There's been rumbling for awhile about the need to extirpate them from mainstream Jewish spaces, but it's never really broken out into the mainstream. But now things might be changing. Abe Silberstein posted a column in the Forward urging the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to expel ZOA from the group. And several constituent members of the Conference appear to be taking up the banner -- or at least calling for an explicit censuring -- including Ameinu, the Union for Reform Judaism, Americans for Peace Now, and HIAS (ZOA, for its part, tried to derail a HIAS leader from ascending to the leadership of the Conference and has urged that it should HIAS that is expelled because it seeks to aid Muslim immigrants and is not truly a "Jewish" organization).

ZOA had previously been warned that its fratricidal tactics could lead to escalating discipline, including expulsion. But if it goes to the Conference membership, are there really the votes to kick them out? I'm dubious.

There are 51 members of the Conference, but "major" notwithstanding, not all of them are all that big. There's a fair amount of deadweight, groups that once were prominent but now are basically shells (the American Jewish Congress is a notorious example). Meanwhile, quite a few significant liberal Jewish groups are not members -- J Street was famously denied membership back in 2014, and groups like T'ruah, the New Israel Fund, and Hazon are also on the outside.

When ZOA tried to stop Dianne Lob of HIAS from becoming the next Chair of the Conference, they lost by a vote of 43-8. Those eight votes haven't been released (though one can venture some pretty solid guesses about who they are), but they represent a floor on ZOA's support, not a ceiling. Canvassing the membership, one can certainly see many of the larger players lining up against ZOA if the political winds shift in the right direction. But it is very hard for me to count 26 potential organizations voting to expel ZOA outright. Many of the smaller groups are, at best, studiously "non-confrontational", and at worst outright sympathizers with ZOA's authoritarian agenda.

Of course, this raises the question of whether the Conference itself is antiquated beyond repair, and some have suggested that liberal groups should leave outright if ZOA is allowed to stay. That possibility, unfortunately, has to be taken seriously. But another approach is that, if it's impossible to kick groups out, work harder to incorporate new groups in. True, J Street tried to do just that a few years ago and was blocked out. But J Street is (quite unfairly, but it is what it is) a particular lightning rod for criticism. By contrast, now would be an excellent time to push to include more organizations that explicitly represent Jews of Color (such as Be'chol Leshon). The "soft middle" that might hesitate to outright kick out a group like ZOA might be similarly loathe to obstruct the incorporation of such organizations -- and their inclusion would, in addition to just being the right thing to do, counterbalance the votes of some of the obsolete legacy organizations as well as almost certainly generating greater internal pressure to speak out against the sort of racism and authoritarianism that ZOA has become known for.

How Endangered is Yvette Clarke?

Last week, we asked how endangered long-time NYC Rep. Eliot Engel (D) was in his Democratic primary later this month (incidentally, Engel's primary challenger, Jamaal Bowman, just picked up an endorsement from Bernie Sanders). Today, we ask the same question of Engel's neighboring incumbent, Rep. Yvette Clarke, who represents parts of Brooklyn. Like Engel, Clarke has a relatively progressive voting record, while (also like Engel) still generally associated with the establishment wing of the party. And like Engel, she faces a vigorous challenge later this month.

In the 2018 primary, the nation's eyes were riveted by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's upset victory over incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary. This overshadowed Yvette Clarke's own narrow escape -- she turned back a challenge from community activist Adem Bunkeddeko with just 52% of the vote. Bunkeddeko is back for a rematch this cycle, but this time he's got company: Isiah James, a Democratic Socialist, and city councilor Chaim Deutsch, who is a conservative Democrat closely tied to the Orthodox Jewish community.  James and Bunkeddeko are running to her left, while Deutsch is tackling her from the right.

So how much trouble is Clarke in?

On the one hand, it is very often the case that a primary challenger who narrowly loses to the incumbent on their first try is able to close the deal on the second, as they become a more familiar figure and gain the attention of lower-information voters. Such was the case for Marie Newman against Dan Lipinski earlier this year, as well as Donna Edwards ousting Albert Wynn back in the youthful days of this blog. There was some indication that Clarke was caught napping last time around, and has kicked her campaign into gear this cycle. But coronavirus and lockdowns are throwing all normal campaigns for a loop, and to the extent Clarke needs to run from behind, she might not be able to do it.

On the other hand, unlike in Engel's race, here the field of challengers hasn't consolidated down. James and Bunkeddeko still may split the anti-establishment vote. And while James' candidacy appears to be sputtering out a bit, Bunkeddeko thus far hasn't received the high-profile endorsements that Jamaal Bowman has managed to pull down -- indicating that his challenge is potentially seen as less viable than Bowman's.

Yet while the conventional wisdom is that fractured fields help incumbents, that may not be the case here given how Deutsch is running his campaign. While Clarke is not a conservative Democrat, she has historically polled well in the Orthodox Jewish portions of her district where Deutsch's base resides -- this area almost certainly gave her the margin of victory in 2018. The way Deutsch is running his campaign -- actively touting endorsements from the NYPD and decrying "looters in the streets" -- seems ill-suited to actually winning a 2020 Democratic primary, but his laser-like focus on the portions of the district where Clarke has historically over-performed could suppress her numbers enough to allow Bunkeddeko to pull through.

This race has flown further under the radar than Engel's, but I think there's a solid chance the incumbent gets unseated. New York is shaping to have another eventful primary.

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

Virtues of a Time

Do you ever feel as if your particular virtues aren't suited for the historical moment you're living in?

All of us, I suspect, have certain things we're good at. Athleticism, courage, cleverness, prudence, etc. And different moments in history demand different virtues. In a time of war, physical prowess and courage will be highly prized. But in other moments in time, they'll be far less important. Some periods call for consideration and thoughtfulness; others call for aggressive action. The bold in one period might be the hot-headed and reckless in another. The prudent in one time could be the quiescent in the next.

Right now, I feel as if my particular virtues aren't well adapted to the times I live in. The things that are most in need right now are traits that I don't feel I especially possess. The things that I'm very good at feel passe and irrelevant.

That's not an indictment of the times. History is not obligated to bend itself to my skill set. But it's an interesting and discomforting feeling nonetheless. Had you asked me a few years ago, and I would have felt quite comfortable about the match between my virtues and what I felt the world demanded of me. Now? Much less so.